Chris Liebig was a former classmate of mine at both college and law school, yet somehow, despite attending the same schools together for years on end, we never actually met! Then, a few months ago, Chris connected with me through The Lunch Tray to discuss an issue that’s of serious concern to many readers of this blog: the ridiculously short amount of time allotted for students to eat lunch at many schools. Chris has his own blog, as he describes below, and I asked him if he would be willing to share here his efforts to try to improve this situation in his Iowa City school district, where he is now the parent of three children and teaches legal writing and analysis at the University of Iowa College of Law (but the opinions he expresses here are entirely his own). Here is his guest blog post:
The Incredible Shrinking Lunch Period
by Chris Liebig
When my oldest daughter started kindergarten, I was surprised to find out how short the school’s lunch period was: a measly fifteen minutes to get in and get out. Sometimes I’d mention it to other parents, and they were puzzled by it, too, but then the conversation would move on. Maybe we figured that the school administrators must have a reason, must know what they’re doing. Maybe we just thought there was nothing we could do about it.
Five years went by, and two more of my kids went off to kindergarten. I gradually realized that our school system didn’t think of education in the same way I did. What I saw as the goals of a good education — for example, encouraging the kids to be curious, to ask good questions, to take initiative, and to find pleasure in learning about the world around them — didn’t seem to be shared by this school system. More and more it seemed like the district’s only goals were to raise the kids’ standardized test scores and to teach them to fear authority — both of which, I’ll admit, they did quite well. I started blogging to talk about those issues. And when another parent circulated a letter — which turned into a petition — arguing that our kids need more than fifteen minutes to eat a healthy lunch, I jumped at the opportunity to sign on.
So did dozens of other parents. Many people were surprised to learn that school lunches were so short, compared to when they had gone to school. Some recounted stories of how, as children, they had had enough time to walk home, eat a homemade lunch, and then walk back to school. Others (including me) told of how their kids came home hungry every day, or finished their lunches on the walk home from school. (This was often an apple. When kids have to eat fast, it’s not the apple that gets eaten.)
My Lebanese-American friend was flabbergasted to learn that the school system would treat lunch like a pit-stop at the Indy 500. Meals aren’t just about cramming food into your mouth as quickly as you can, she said. They’re an essential part of culture, a time for connecting with friends and enjoying life. As people pointed out, kids learn things at lunch, too — about social interaction, about manners, about eating. But I like to think that we give kids a lunch period not because it’s educational, but because they’re people who deserve social time over a meal just like adult people do.
We soon found out that things were even worse than we had imagined. The fifteen minutes for lunch often included the time spent coming, going, waiting in line, and cleaning up. Lunch was usually followed by recess, but recess periods were being cut back, too. One parent signed the petition with this comment:
I ate lunch with my son last year for his birthday and what was more appalling to me than the 15 minute lunch was the fact that in the middle of winter his class filed in the lunch room in full winter gear, boots, snow pants, and coats zipped with their hats and gloves shoved down the inside. We were told that there was no time to get dressed for recess so they had to sit and not only eat very quickly but do so while roasting. It still upsets me to think about.
How had it come to this? How could a school full of professional educators have marched kids into the lunchroom in their snow pants and parkas, and no one thought anything was wrong? How could my first-grader — six years old! — be getting an hour of math instruction every day and less than fifteen minutes to sit and eat her lunch?
At a meeting with concerned parents, the school superintendent sympathized with our concerns, but explained how much pressure the administrators were under, because of No Child Left Behind, to raise standardized test scores. As a result, administrators felt that they had to add instructional time to the day, and there were only so many places to find those minutes. Hence the disappearing lunch and recess.
Never mind that a lot of this made no sense whatsoever. Do hungry kids learn better? Do kids from economically struggling families — who might be getting their best meal of the day at school — benefit academically from being rushed through that meal? Is there any evidence that giving kids time to eat a decent lunch, and time for physical activity and social interaction, would hurt, rather than help, their academic performance? Is it a good idea to teach unhealthy eating habits to kids in a country suffering from an epidemic of childhood obesity? Is there no sacrifice we shouldn’t make in the name of raising test scores?
I wish there were a happy ending to this story. But after listening sympathetically to our concerns, the superintendent issued a new policy: henceforth, the kids would have “no less than fifteen minutes” to eat — which in practice has meant that kids still sometimes end up with only ten minutes. Oh, and kids would no longer be made to wear their winter clothes to lunch — the time for getting dressed would be taken out of their recess instead. Meanwhile, the superintendent argued that the best solution would be to lengthen the school day.
On my blog, I challenged anyone to prove that Iowa City doesn’t have the shortest lunch periods in America. (For the sake of your kids, I hope you can’t meet that challenge.) I’ve continued to talk about the issue to anyone who’ll listen; five of our seven school board seats are up for election this year, and I’ve written to all of the candidates asking their position on the issue. (You can read about the interactions that other parents and I have had with our local officials on the issue in this series of posts.) But I can’t say I’m optimistic that anything will change. I’m afraid our kids aren’t people anymore: they’re data points.
What’s it like out there in the rest of the country? Are your kids getting enough time to eat lunch?